In the middle of August last year, I stood in a grotto whose walls were grey with wetness and covered in stalactites. The light from the headlamps flickered eerily and my shoes slipped on the ancient steps of a sunken amphitheatre that the tuff had enclosed as tightly as hard stone. At one place a painted fresco peeked out of the lava, scrawled by the hand of first visitors to these incredible finds, twenty metres underground. Beneath their scrawling lay the letters of a graffito painted on the wall by a slave two thousand years ago. Whoever had written his name on this place was long dead. It was silent and only the dripping of water could be heard. My guide pointed to the ceiling. I flinched back. A face stared at me from the lava. “This is the imprint of a statue recovered from the tufa here in this place.”
My heart beat faster. Who doesn’t remember school lessons just before Christmas when, as children, we were first read the famous letter Pliny the Younger had written to Tacitus about how Vesuvius devoured the Campanian coast in 79 AD? Pompei, Herculaneum, Boscoreale have been names like myths ever since. And here I stood. Deep under Vesuvius, in one of the passages that the first explorers of these sites had dug into the ash from the bottom of local wells. There, where no one else was allowed to access except the occasional scientist. This is where it had begun – archaeology.
These Pliny letters had already cost me musings. The common school translation said: “He had just stepped out of the house, having received a letter from Rectina, the wife of Cascus, who was alarmed at the impending danger (for her estate lay at the foot of Vesuvius and there was no other escape than by ship) and she begged him to rescue her from the threat. Upon this he changed his plan, and what he had begun out of curiosity he now executed with nobility.”
I knew that Admiral Pliny had been off Baia in the north of Naples with his fleet, sheltering the emperor there (these imperial villas are almost all under water today). I therefore wondered how the letter from this Rectina should have got to Pliny. Certainly not by ship, otherwise Rectina could have taken it to escape. There remained carrier pigeons, but why did a simple ‘friend’ have pigeons that belonged to the admiral of the Roman fleet and therefore returned to him? Pliny was over fifty years old, unmarried and obese. A mistress could pretty much be ruled out… Besides, I wondered why Pliny could send the whole fleet to a simple ‘girlfriend’ like that, with no effort on his part as an admiral, instead of dutifully shepherding the emperor, who was surely also in danger due to Naples’ proximity to the volcano. Thirdly, of course, I also wondered why Pliny subsequently arrives on the coast, sees that all is lost, but instead of turning back, stays there and dies.
Once you ask such questions and begin to investigate, you will inevitably be captivated by the incredible story of that volcanic eruption in 79 AD. He discovers one mystery and one answer after another. I started writing a book about it. It has become a thriller, but it is pedantically researched and based on facts. It is about the first excavation of the remains of Herculaneum under the tunnels of the small village of Resina. It is about the errors of the historians, about criminals and treasure thieves, about dark passages in the lava and about what still lies down there. …Especially of the latter.
It is also about Naples, the scent of oranges and the blue gulf. Of sun and poverty and a region that Goethe already idolised. Love and drama and adventure add spice. How could it not?
No, I’m not giving anything away when I write that I discovered that Pliny’s letters no longer exist in the original and their translation is faulty. The ancient Romans wrote in capital letters, without full stops or commas, and with a thousand abbreviations. To err is human. Pliny, I am convinced today, never received a letter from his mysterious friend Rectina but a marching order from the place Rectina, which is identical with the famous Villa of the Papyri (and thus today’s Ercolano). Nor did he set off with the fleet simply out of nobility, but in that villa lived someone important enough to set it in motion and to be in constant homing-pigeon communication with it. It is a mystery who this was (and I have my ideas about this)… Pliny never returned alive because his ships did not yet have the technology to sail against the wind. And so it went for many. It was difficult
It was harder than one might think to get away from that coast on that ominous day. And so much that could have been saved with luckier winds remained in the houses and harbours.
When the Villa of the Papyri was found, it was filled to the brim with historical papyri of inestimable value. It now contained world-famous statues, mosaics and frescoes. – And it still lies in the tuff. You cannot visit it. The ancient tunnels that run through it have been largely buried again. And two of its three floors have never even been entered. They are crumbling, shattered in their centre by the force of the lava avalanche. And full of riddles…
Join me, or rather – the aged carabiniere Camarata and the charismatic professor Cariello – on a breathtaking hunt for a mysterious murderer and his prey, which he finds in this villa, on the trail of history, into the depths beneath the lava of Vesuvius in Herculaneum. They will fever with us, trace mysteries and feel the southern sun on their faces. And maybe they will even find something in the process of reading that will also be very important to them personally.
I would be delighted.